Every Reform synagogue leader hears it, especially from congregants who grew up Union Prayer Book Reform: “We’re becoming Conservative.”
It came up (again) on the Union for Reform Judaism’s Worship listserv, with a post asking how to respond to Joe’s multi-faceted complaint: “The congregation and the Union are becoming too conservative, too rigid in our thinking, in our minhagim. We are losing our focus on what Reform actually means.”
The ensuing congregational discussion drew responses like “too loose is just as bad as too rigid,” and “Reform means you can make it up as you go along.”
Not having been there, I’m not sure whether Joe thinks the congregation is becoming too conservative (slow to change) or too Conservative (heavier into ritual and into Hebrew). Too rigid in our thinking seems to imply the former, losing our focus on what Reform actually means, the latter.
The listserv discussion was as animated as the congregational discussion where the conversation started, with most participants interpreting the ambiguity as too Conservative.
Said Richard Furman (Temple Israel, Minneapolis):
“In a very simple definition, a Reform Jew holds that the individual is the ultimate authority in matters of practice. In practical application, this encompasses everyone from the congregant who complains the shul is becoming too “conservative” because the board adopts more elements of normative praxis to the congregant who is frustrated there is no daily minyan where tefillin can be lain. The answer to the congregant who is grumping is that in creating services, the fact of personal autonomy creates a communal need to accommodate a wide range of individual praxis.”
Educator Iris Koller suggested a study program of Reform Jewish principles and practice to foster dialogue and establish understanding. Pained at Jewish divisiveness, Iris believes all parties to these discussions are struggling to find the right Jewish path, without recognizing that the journey can be more important than the destination.
Of course, Joe’s complaint implies a detour from the right Reform path, leading away from the one right Reform destination. Nor will instituting Iris’s study program tomorrow give Joe the answer he seeks today.
Jonathan Minsberg (Temple Israel, Minneapolis) predicts an eventual solution from the trend towards non-denominationalism or post-denominationalism. Although a member of a Reform congregation, he describes himself not as Reform but as progressive. Others use the word liberal, and still others divide the Jewish world into a simple Orthodox and non-Orthodox.
Whatever the label, let’s distinguish between religiously hybrid Jews, not totally comfortable with the ideology, lifestyle, and liturgical “packages” of the organized denominational streams, and non-denominational Jews who identify ethnically, culturally, or in other secular ways to Judaism but not in any sense religiously. Nor should we forget that the style in which one likes to worship does not necessarily reflect the way one lives.
In Genesis, God asks Adam, Ayeka, where are you, and Adam answers, Hineni, Here I am. When Joe asks Ayeka, where are we, in terms of what Reform really means, he wants the answer to be Hineni, I’m here, just where I was when I formed my permanent understanding of the right way.
If reasoned explanations for what has changed fall on deaf ears, maybe the easiest response to Joe’s “We’re becoming Conservative” is “So what’s wrong with that?”
Unfortunately, neither Joe nor most other congregants or board members has had the kind of orientation course that Iris suggests, nor have they internalized that we are constantly evolving, testing and modifying, living the old saying: Reform is a verb. But these random observations might provide answers whenever the “We’re becoming too….” comes up.
- The challenge to Reform Judaism has changed since the Reformers met in Pittsburgh in 1885. Their job, as they saw it, was to help Jews become Americans. Reform’s job in 2010 is to help Americans become Jews. Using Hebrew, and performing rituals, seems to work better towards that end for most people than abstaining from them. Whatever else Reform has been, it has always been pragmatic.
- Judaism, especially since the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jewish people, has always evolved and changed to meet changed circumstances. The roadmap for religious practice, Halacha, usually translated as Jewish Law, gets its name from the verb to walk, to move forward. As the fastest walkers in Judaism, we may sometimes walk too fast, so then we have to slow down and even retrace our steps. One way we do this is by reclaiming rituals we once abandoned.
- Conservative Judaism walks slower than we do, although, other than liturgically, they eventually seem to catch up. (Women clergy and LGBT acceptance are prominent examples.) This probably leads to Conservative Joes complaining, “We’re becoming Reform.”
- What we practice collectively (because it is comfortable for the collective) may or may not inspire individuals to emulate individually.
- At the core, our job is to help Jews grow as Jews while living in the broader society. The Reform synagogue provides not only a place to “do Jewish” but a springboard for doing as much outside as meets the individual’s comfort zone.
Will any of these answers satisfy Joe? Probably not. If Joe doesn’t sing the same tune as the rest of his congregation, invite him to sing the harmony. It’s valuable to have him ask ayeka, because it reminds us to think about where we have been, to examine where we are, and to contemplate where we should be going. Among the things that differentiate Reform Judaism are our inclusivity, our diversity, and our openness to ideas both new and old. Among the things that Reform has in common with the other streams is our commitment to Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Hasadim, study, worship, and good deeds. As long as we remember both, we have not lost sight of what Reform really means.
Special thanks to Marvin Kranz (Temple Sinai, Washington DC, Temple Shalom, Chevy Chase MD), Virginia Spatz (Temple Micah, Washington DC) and Cantor Penny Kessler, (United Jewish Center, Danbury CT), whose comments, along with those of the list members directly quoted above, were instrumental in helping me shape my comments.